Lost for words

It was coming across, quite by chance, the phrase ‘brown study’ that made me think about this. The phrase means, so the Cambridge English Dictionary tells us, [to fall into] a mood in which you are very involved in your own thoughts and not paying attention to anything else (old fashioned).

There is an example from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893), as related by Dr Watson: “Finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation, I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study.”

Old fashioned indeed. I have never heard or seen the phrase used in English before, have you? A past issue of The Word Detective tells us it dates back to the early 16th century, with ‘brown’ being, at the time, a synonym for ‘gloomy or serious’ (due to its generally dark hue) and ‘study’ for a ‘state of reverie or contemplation’.

The English language changed massively between 15th to mid-17th Century, in terms of pronunciation, particularly vowels, vocabulary and grammar. Anyone who’s read Chaucer, say, or Shakespeare, recognises this. However, as James Rayner notes in his article on Victorian Words and Phrases on Historic UK, English has not changed that much since Victorian times, hence we’re able to read Victorian literature with relative ease. Still, there are words, phrases, and uses of language that are different from today. Rayner notes the tendency to ‘read faces’ for insights into character – the “sciences” of Physiognomy was popular in the 19th century (since discredited, of course, particularly as used in racial profiling). So noses were aquiline’ or ‘Coriolanian’, for instance, representing a classic ideal.

Rayner also notes the habit of naming products after their origins – at a time when international trade grew exponentially.  If over a certain age, we would still understand a book described as having ‘Morrocco binding’ for example, after country producing a quality leather product. In his collection of short pieces Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens describes the garb of one fellow in disparaging terms: ‘That young fellow in the faded brown coat… Look at the dirty white Berlin gloves, and the cheap silk handkerchief…’ Berlin gloves being those of fine white cotton, and not a term used today. The same sketch, incidentally, mentions the wearing of a ‘blue surtout’, a type of long winter overcoat worn, as the name suggests, over the rest of the clothing.

Dickens, as you might expect, is a rich source of Victorian references. In Bleakhouse, for instance, he notes Esther Summerson and Ada Clare conversing ‘in a low tone because a full-dressed gentleman in a bag wig frequently came in and out…’ A bag wig being one of a number of wig types, going back to the 18th century,enclosed in a small silk bag. In A Christmas Carol, market sellers offer ‘Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags’. The plump and appealing biffin was a local apple variety, and squab being round and plump – like a young pigeon, one imagines. Vocabulary aside, would such rich and colourful description be advised by editors and publishers today?

Slang words do not appear that often in literature. There are entertaining and wonderful collections available all over the Internet, which I won’t repeat here. Many of these were collected by James Redding Ware, the pseudonym of British writer Andrew Forrester, into Passing English of the Victorian era, a dictionary of heterodox English, slang and phrase (1909). This includes such delights as ‘afternoonified’ meaning smart, even dapper; ‘bricky’ for brave or fearless; ‘cop a mouse’ for gaining a black eye; and ‘podsnappery’ the ‘wilful determination to ignore the objectionable or inconvenient’ (well, the word may be obsolete, but not the characteristic).

I have blogged before on the dilemma of how much period language or how many period references to use when writing historical fiction (e.g. Take you there). Writing Historical Fiction by Celia Brayfield has a contribution from author Hilary Mantel, noting: ‘We [when writing historical fiction] don’t want to misrepresent our ancestors, but we don’t want to make the reader impatient. Too much period flavour and you slow up the story.’ In short then, less can definitely be more.  

Image thanks
Main photo by Rafaela Biazi on Unsplash
Smaller image by stephen packwood on Unsplash

10 thoughts on “Lost for words

  1. I do not ever remember seeing that term

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There seems to be some words and phrases we stopped using in UK but are used in US – and probably vice-versa; it’s an interesting one.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve always been intrigued by “good innings” when someone older has died


  2. ? i didnt understand, can someone help me?


  3. I think I just found my new pen name lol — ‘brown study’ :)) no, really, I’m spending in that kind of mood almost 60% of my daytime 😂😯🤔 About publishers and editors – mmm, good question… I think slang is not so popular, especially if so old fashioned

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess in historical fiction it can help set the period setting. But I think you’re right – there is a temptation to use period language ‘because you can’ rather than adding anything to the text. So less does tend to be better.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Never came across “the brown study”. I guess brown then was like felling blue now? Sort of?
    Now go back to Somerset Maugham and others of the time. They often “made love” to pretty ladies. In public. 8Goodness gracious.
    All well Libre?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting point – blue is the new brown! Yes, the ‘make love’ can look unfortunate, simple ‘courting’ or flirting has become a euphemism. I think the latter use is originally from the US – they seem to be more… prim (I am generalising a lot, of course) about terms for sexual acts.

      Liked by 1 person

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